Unlike what is commonly taught, the Reformation movement did not start with the nailing of Luther’s 95 Theses. But the 95 Theses were akin to Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott; it was a moment that marked that the protest had fundamentally changed. By the time Luther nailed his theses there were small Protestant movements all throughout Europe.
Many will note John Hus and the Moravian church (the church of the brethren) While this group did not join with the Reformation movement they predated Luther were one of the movements that really began to hold a mirror to the Catholic Church. However, many in the reformed movement will point to the Waldensian movements, a movement dating back to 1215. This movement was interesting. It’s proximity to Rome, being in the Italian Alps, and its early dating, merely 200 years after the east west split, reflected that Christendom was not the unified body that we think of when we think of the reformation.
The reason I bring this up and dive into the reformation, is to highlight that where we are today, just shy of 497 years after the theses were nailed, is a church that has been made up of many different people, theologies, and struggles. This means that things change, and we know that our world has changed, the question is, how do we engage the world?
In the center of all the protestant movements is the Bible. But often what separates us is how we approach the Bible. Growing up in the Midwest, learning the Bible in church was pretty much compulsory; all of my friends were learning the same things in their churches as I was in mine, though with a different perspective. When I went to San Francisco Theological Seminary (SFTS), one of the worries that was brought up was “SFTS is a liberal seminary that does not believe in the Bible.” I did not know what that statement meant (I kind of still don’t but . . .). Interestingly, when I arrived and started to take classes, I learned that the Bible was required in every class, including history, and we often spent time doing exegesis to understand how a passage was used and how that might enlighten us.
We were also encouraged to read the Bible over and over from cover to cover. If you have never done this, I highly recommend it, though there are some insanely boring parts as well as violent ones. But what I learned from this experience, as well as in seminary is to live a biblical life, but as I read the Bible, that is a life which struggles with this understanding of justice and faithfulness.
Interestingly, that is a big part of the foundations of the reformed movement. Whether you go all the way back to the Waldensians or just to Luther and Zwingli or even more recently in Barth, all scream against the excesses of the church and adhere stronger to the biblical mandate for us to live in just communities and faithfulness to God. Here is where we really struggle, though, when we ask “to whom are you faithful?”
It is interesting. At the beginning of the summer every year I pick the focus texts from the lectionary and at the beginning of the week I sit with them again and do my exegesis. No matter how many times I have studied a particular text, something new always seems to find me. More often the not, that “something” challenges my understanding of God and how God is calling me. At times, it challenges my whole belief structure. However, I always praise God for this because it reminds me that I am not here to serve anything or anyone (that includes myself) other than God.
This is what the reformers were trying to get the church to do. As a Christian Church in the year 2014, this is our great challenge to let the word of God transform us and not to be beholden to something which we have created.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen